Strategies to Support STEM and Language Learning for Your ELL Students
Science, technology, engineering, and math drive the innovation needed to solve today’s problems. Research shows that STEM careers are projected to grow by almost 11% by 2031— faster than any other occupation.
Despite the increase in demand for these fields, one group, in particular, remains vastly underrepresented in both colleges and the workforce: English language learners (ELLs).
English learners are a fast-growing population in our schools today. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, ELLs comprised 10.4% of the student population from kindergarten through twelfth grade in 2019. The same study found that 64% of teachers have at least one ELL student in their class.
This linguistic diversity is expected to continue to grow— so how can teachers ensure that they are creating opportunities for ELLs to engage in STEM learning?
When considering how to support English language learners in STEM, it is important to take a close look at the connection between STEM and language learning. With the right tools and support, teachers can help ELLs overcome the obstacles they face in STEM content learning.
The Connection Between STEM and Language Learning
No matter what language you speak, language and content are not learned separately.
“Across school subjects, as children learn new concepts, they also learn new discourse patterns, new ways of using language to interact with all of their meaning-making resources to share their perspectives as they engage with the concepts.” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.)
One major obstacle for ELLs is that they are developing bilingual skills simultaneously as they learn new concepts. It is important to remember that language proficiency is not a prerequisite to accessing higher-order thinking skills in content areas.
While their linguistic diversity can present a challenge for them, it can also be an asset. ELL students have a wealth of varied experiences and perspectives that are particularly valuable when it comes to finding solutions to STEM-related problems.
By providing your ELL students with vocabulary instruction in conjunction with meaningful STEM activities, they will be able to develop content learning and expand their language proficiency.
Planning Your STEM Objectives
ELLs need to have equal access to STEM opportunities as their native-speaking peers. With intentional instruction in both language and STEM concepts, ELLs will be able to meaningfully engage in learning.
Determine Both Your Language and Content Objectives
Your objectives serve as the roadmap for your lesson, helping you and your students stay focused on the most important elements. Content objectives outline what your students will be able to know and do at the end of the lesson. Language objectives focus on how students will be able to communicate that knowledge.
Language objectives focus on the four domains of language (writing, reading, speaking, and listening) and are determined by your students’ language proficiency levels. When you’re planning your STEM language objectives, the questions below will help you determine the appropriate objectives to include:
What language functions are related to the topic of the lesson?
Some common language functions related to STEM include: hypothesizing, summarizing, comparing/contrasting, charting information, and describing.
What are the key academic vocabulary, concept words, or other words that my students need to know to access the content of the lesson?
The sheer number of STEM vocabulary words can be overwhelming. Focus on a few key terms that are important to understanding the lesson. Don’t forget about multiple-meaning words, too (i.e. table, and, face, carry).
Are there any grammar or language structures that are specific to this content area?
Sometimes, science textbooks may use passive voice to explain a process. Comparative language is used to compare two related concepts. ELL students will benefit from direct instruction in these specific structures.
4 Supportive Language Strategies for STEM Lessons
Effective STEM lessons for your ELLs include supportive language instruction alongside content learning. Below are four strategies that will help your English learners access rigorous STEM content in meaningful ways.
1. Focus on Academic Vocabulary
STEM subjects are very vocabulary-dense. Your English learners will come across words that may be unfamiliar, like parallelogram or atmosphere. They will also find confusing homonyms, such as table, root, plane, or cycle.
It’s important to pre-teach these words to your students and provide them with multiple opportunities to practice them in context. The following activities reinforce STEM vocabulary words:
Picture dictionaries are powerful tools for helping newcomers learn basic vocabulary— they can be beneficial for STEM vocabulary words as well. Have students create a picture dictionary with multiple-meaning words, 2D and 3D shapes, laboratory tools, or terms in geology.
Games can help to keep your English learners engaged and reduce the impact of cognitive overload. This list of fun vocabulary games can be adapted depending on your students’ proficiency levels. Pair up students or create small groups to help them practice their listening and speaking skills as well.
2. Scaffold Your Instruction
English learners benefit from strategic instructional scaffolding, as it helps them to build background knowledge and reinforce new learning. By providing instruction in manageable chunks, they’re less likely to become overwhelmed.
As you plan your STEM lessons, consider the following scaffolding strategies to support your ELLs in becoming more confident, independent learners:
Model and demonstrate concepts
Research has shown that all students learn best when they have opportunities to participate in hands-on activities. By providing your ELL students with activities that allow them to physically engage with scientific or mathematical principles, you can develop their understanding of concepts— even if they don’t have the language to express it yet.
They will also become more active learners because their participation is not dependent on their language proficiency. As you teach STEM vocabulary words in conjunction with interactive activities, you will strengthen the connections between STEM and language learning.
When teaching ELL students science, consider using hands-on experiments in your lessons to strengthen their understanding of scientific principles. Manipulatives are versatile tools for teaching ELL students math because they provide a common language for students to communicate their thought processes— which is especially beneficial for newcomers.
Use graphic organizers
Graphic organizers are useful for integrating literacy into STEM subjects. They can help students see the connections between ideas. The graphic organizers below can be utilized in a variety of ways in STEM lessons:
Give students sentence frames or stems
Sentence frames allow students to share their ideas in discussions or writing— no matter their language proficiency. English learners need multiple opportunities to practice using proper language structure.
WeAreTeachers developed a list of sentence stems by subject area.
3. Activate Their Prior Knowledge
Students retain information better when they can connect it to something that they already know. Simply put, prior knowledge is the foundation for future learning. You can help your students activate their prior knowledge in a variety of ways.
Help your students build background knowledge and vocabulary by bringing in concrete items, or realia. Bring in a thermometer for your weather unit or a plant for your life cycle unit.
Create a KWL chart
Use a KWL chart to determine what your students know (K), want to know (W), and have learned (L) during your lesson or unit. Not only is this a good way to identify students’ prior knowledge, but it can also provide helpful data as a formative assessment.
Provide an anticipatory set
Anticipatory sets are activities that are designed to engage and ignite your students’ interest in the topic of your lesson. This could be as simple as a short video, news article, or a quick discussion of the topic. A demonstration of a science experiment at the beginning of your lesson is sure to pique your students’ curiosity!
4. Incorporate Journaling Into Your Lessons
Journals are an excellent tool to use in your ELL classroom. Using journals in your STEM lessons can help in supporting your English language learners to see the connection between different curricular areas, expand their vocabulary, incorporate higher-order thinking skills, and serve as a formative assessment.
They can also easily be differentiated to your students’ language levels. Newcomers can draw pictures or use sentence frames, while students with more advanced language proficiency can respond to open-ended writing prompts.
When you use journaling in STEM content areas, you can evaluate both their understanding of content skills as well as their writing development. Below are some ideas for using journals in STEM:
By using a journal for teaching math to ELL students, you can build academic language and expand their background knowledge. Many math curricula will ask students to explain their work, which can be difficult for ELL students. Encourage students to use their journals to write out their processes for solving different types of problems.
Journals are an excellent tool for teaching science to ELLs. Students can use journals to write, sketch, or diagram their observations, collect data, and apply specialized science vocabulary terms. Science ESL writing activities for beginners may include asking students to draw their responses or providing them with sentence frames.
By considering your students’ language needs and the language demands of your STEM lessons, you can create an equitable learning environment that supports the success of your English learners.
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